Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Daniel lives with Daddy and his sister Cathy in the woods, in a house of their own making.

This is a small story. Much of it is describing Daniel and his family’s life, current and past, with austere and beautiful descriptions of the copse in which they now live. Eventually, a plot appears. It turns out that Daddy did not own the land he built the family house on, and an age-old question is posed: who truly owns the land? The landowner or the person living on it? Why is the answer not: the community?

This is only half of the question of ownership. The other half: bodies. Who owns them? When a character who represents tenants in a nearby village being squeezed by exorbitant rents begins to wax poetic about the good old union days when workers were fairly treated, another character (a woman), points out how those good ‘ole union boys were like to drink too much and go home and beat their wives. Similarly, throughout the book, Cathy is predated on by men, boys.

The story is told in Daniel’s first person perspective; Daniel, who lives in the woods, ignorant of the world; long-haired, midriff-bared, effeminate. Despite the tight perspective, there is something distant and ethereal about him. Simply living a rural lifestyle does not explain him; Daddy and Cathy, who know far more of the world, see him as something fragile that must be protected. It’s this lens combined with the stellar writing that elevates Elmet, makes it an engrossing version of a story that has been told many times before.

Magnetic Fields by Ron Loewinsohn

This a slim book about spaces. The spaces we inhabit, the spaces we invade. It all starts with a burglar whose taste for stealing tape decks (it’s the 70s!) is replaced by by his desire to simply exist in other people’s homes, consider their lives, drink their coffee and steal their used ashtrays.

There’s a strange feeling to being in someone else’s house, especially when they’re not home. We know that each item has its place, its emotional connections and history. Home robbery is a great violation of privacy, regardless of what is actually stolen. Magnetic Fields exists inside that feeling, both the field we create by living within it, and those fields others create that we can enter or attempt to penetrate.

From Albert the burglar, the novel moves on to other characters, other lives. The last person burglarized is a composer, who moves to a summer home with his family. He considers the inhabitants of that house, and the point of view shifts to enter their lives, and how their home is now invaded by the composer and his family, much like Albert invaded theirs.

Loewinsohn is a poet. Magnetic Fields is composed of short, tight sentences. There’s nothing lyrical about it, and “lyrical” is what I associate with poetry even though I know that is incomplete and wrong. It is only over time that the poetry influence of the book becomes clear: its structure. Passages recur, inexplicably, across chapters. Images repeat. Certain sexual acts or specific sounds. There is most likely some mathematical structure behind it; it elevates both the cohesion of the narrative and the discomfort conjured by the constant invasions of privacy.

The Origin of the Brunists by Robert Coover

While browsing at the bookstore, I picked up the sequel to this book first. Imagine my surprise to find that there was nearly fifty years between the writing of book one (Origin) and book two (Wrath). For that reason alone, I had to read them.

West Condon. 1960s. Church Sundays and beers on the front porch. Italian immigrants and casual misogyny. Highschoolers making it in the back of cars. I was born in the mid-80s, twenty years after this book was set yet it’s remarkable how familiar the working class family community of West Condon feels. Shit I’ve completely forgotten about. The bad: men calling women “broads” or anti-Italian slurs. The good: a greater awareness and understanding of changing seasons, the smells, tastes, fresh spring sun on your skin. It was strange, unsettling.

The first 80ish pages of The Origin of the Brunists is a harrowing account of a mining disaster. Starting with miners filing into work for the night shift, taking the elevator down to the mine, and unbeknownst to them, their doom. I was again struck by familiarity. I worked the night shift for years, in a warehouse loading trucks. OK, maybe I’m dramatizing by comparing that to descending into the bowels of the earth, obliterating my lungs, and putting my life on the line daily, but still. I did almost drop a carburetor on my foot once.

Anyway, the shifting-point of views that demonstrate daily life in the mine and then the terrible disaster that rips it apart and kills ninety seven men is the best part of the novel. It can’t be overstated how miserable the role of a miner is whether it be 1966 or 2018. The novel flounders for a bit, following the disaster, is at its worst for 50-100 pages before it picks up the main thrust of the plot: Giovanni Bruno, the sole survivor of those trapped in the mine, is rescued and an emergent cult forms around the few words he can manage to dislodge from his oxygen-starved brain.

Origin feels like a proto-Stephen King novel. You know those books that flit between a dozen or more townspeople, immerse us deeply in their point of view, then move on to the next person, often displaying a contradictory angle to the person before? Needful Things, Under the Dome, etc. It’s a similar set-up here, except instead of greed and devilry, the town is afflicted by economic depression and religious mania. A specter hovers behind the Brunists. While the mine disaster is behind their rise in the most obvious sense (Bruno himself), it’s the economic and social reality behind it that truly drives it. Mining is a very dangerous job, but in some locations it’s just about the only job. Most of the early adopters of Bruno’s cult are widowed by the disaster or facing no prospects following the mine’s closure. It’s a search for answers/solace/community and especially meaning and closure that creates the Brunists, a cult slash religion that is absolutely sure the world will end soon. It didn’t end this weekend? OK, it’s for sure going to end next weekend. 

I liked this book a great deal. It didn’t completely blow me away, but the town felt so grounded that even had I not already become intrigued by the fifty year gap between them, I’d be reading the sequel. There’s a solidity to the prose that’s difficult to describe. West Condon happened. I need to know the next chapter. 

Minit — A review in 60 words

Minit is fantastic. It conjures this elusive feeling of joyful exploration that so many games seek, typically with far larger budgets, but very few achieve.

You, a little duck-like(?) creature, find a cursed sword that will kill you and send you back home every sixty seconds. Only the knowledge you gained or the items you’ve found will allow you to 

[dies]  

OK. Minit.

Turns out that by combining a retro game (NES Legend of Zelda), adding a 60 second limitation, and utilizing a minimalist yet charming aesthetic creates something surprising and wonderful. The time limit is not a thoughtless restraint — it’s used to set up puzzles that leave you scratching your head how you’ll finish in time. It’s also used to

[dies]

Where was I?

Minit’s world is peopled with cute talking animals, throwing down clever one-liners. Or playing off the time limit — one of the first buddies you encounter is an old turtle slowly recounting how to find treasure, yet initially you’ll die before he completes his tale.

The sparse black&white style can also evoke a more sinister mood like

[dies]

The game knows when to quit. Rather than bloat the length, the first run will take maybe a couple hours. Afterwards, you unlock a far more difficult 40 second mode that really pushes your sword-man efficiency. Without much planning, I reached the point where I could beat the game in about 15 minutes especially with the final unlockable mode which

[dies]

Minit is fantastic. More importantly: it is surprising.

The original Legend of Zelda is the perfect entry point. We played it as kids and there’s something child-like in the joy Minit evokes. Something from a world where you didn’t already know what was going to happen next, in gaming, or film, or novels. Something wide-eyed and fresh, full of adventure.

Metal Gear Survive

This is the most intense game I’ve ever played.

If you were a fly on the wall, or a Russian spy eluding detection, intent on studying just how animated I am playing video games, typically you’d be disappointed. I don’t move or emote much. But for Metal Gear Survive? You’d find me hunched forward, alert and engaged, occasionally muttering or cursing. Then moments later, with a sharp cry,  throwing a fist up in victory or lurching backward in defeat. 

I was in it.

During the prologue of Metal Gear Solid V, Mother Base is attacked and Big Boss is knocked into a coma for ten years, leading to the plot of that game. In this game, it turns out that during that very same prologue, after Boss left, a wormhole opened. Yes, that’s right. A wormhole opened. A bunch of Boss’ former soldier-followers were sucked into the wormhole, where they arrived in another world, a barren wasteland called Dite (dee-TAY). Dite is home to hordes of zombies (wanderers) and much of it is covered with a miasmic cloud called Dust.

I knew of this premise before starting the game and it sounded spectacularly dumb. My first surprise: the story is presented well. The intro is intriguing, creepy. The ‘spooky other world reached through a veil’ premise reminded me of the novel and movie Annihilation and the living dust itself evoked Stephen King’s The Mist, especially at a point partway through when you realize there is something very, very big in there. The overall plot is surprising throughout, though the individual characters are weak.

Metal Gear Survive is built on the Fox Engine from Metal Gear Solid V, which I wrote about here. Similarly, it’s a game of narrative moments generated by the engine itself. During my first foray into the Dust, my character put an oxygen mask over her face and the game informed me that I would die if I ran out of oxygen. It also warned me not to lose my bearings and get lost because the map does not function in the Dust — you need to use landmarks visible in the murk to find your way.

So I set off on my mission to retrieve a lost data cache. Carefully, I took out wanderers with my primitive arsenal, in small groups of ones and twos. I found the building, retrieved the data. On my way out, I noticed another shack. Inside was a container full of loot. Locked. I tried to pick the lock, but since it was my first encounter with the mechanism, I failed, leading to the loud screech of metal on metal. Naturally, every creature nearby was alerted and now I had zombies shambling through the door, tumbling through the windows, moaning, reaching for me, crouched still next to to the container.

I sprinted out of the there, creeped around the building, wandered off into the dust, underestimated a few wanderers, almost died, panicked for a moment before I could reorient to my surroundings, returned to the shack.

The wanderers were still there, milling around the last place they saw me. The game preserved its continuity. Low on oxygen, as well as supplies of food and water, I gave up. I turned around and left the Dust.

OK, this may not seem remarkable. I went and fought some zombies and left.

Yet the organic nature of this situation exceeds what generally occurs in games. I am a completionist. I get all the treasure chests, kill all the dudes. This game forced me to accept my defeat, scavenge what I could, and survive. It makes the entire world / setting / gameplay more immersive, more believable. I’ve killed untold numbers of zombies in games, but it has never felt this authentic. Later on, I’d be frantically shooting wanderers with my makeshift bow while at my back, several more clamored at my makeshift fence, started to climb it, their combined weight bowing the fence until it buckled, tumbling the zombies face-first to the ground, where they proceeded to drag themselves across the ground by their fingernails.

This game was panned by the critics. Gaming journalism has a serious problem with a follow-the-leader type mentality where first impressions (or pre-impressions) are of utmost importance. Opinions tend to skew one way or another and not represent a spectrum. They complained the early game was too harsh, since food and water are quite scarce and you’re forced to listen to your character gag after drinking dirty water, while crossing your fingers she doesn’t get sick. The fact that this greatly heightens the danger and urgency of your first steps in a dangerous world goes unsaid and unappreciated. They complained about microtransactions that have no bearing on the game at all. They complained this game is “not Metal Gear”, whatever the hell that means.

Don’t get me wrong here — the game isn’t flawless. It’s using purely recycled environments and assets from its parent game and despite it’s stellar start, it never lives up to its full promise. But it is far more inventive and immersive than the over-hyped, big-budget crap that so often reviews well.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

This book starts strong. Harari clears up the common misconception that the evolutionary progress of humanity is a straight line with stops at neanderthal or homo erectus before arriving at homo sapiens. While our distant ancestors lingered in their cradle in Africa, others left and scattered across Europe and Asia. And when homo sapiens finally decided to leave their home and explore new lands, the other types of human were still out there. From brawnier and bigger-brained homo neanderthalensis to dwarf-sized homo flores. The fact that only sapiens are around now, or indeed any time in the past thirty thousand years, is an ominous hint to what happened when they encountered the other humans.

What set our ancestors apart? Fiction.

Around seventy thousand years ago, home sapiens underwent a cognitive revolution. Prior to this point, we had no problem using language to talk about real things (i.e. “Stay away from the river, there’s a lion!). After this point, we could conceive of things that do not exist (i.e. “The lion-man, whom we should worship, appeared to me in the fire and commanded us to cross the great river to new lands”.) In addition to acting as the genesis for art and religion, this also allowed humans to mobilize and organize in much larger groups than otherwise possible. If a stranger is also a disciple of the lion-man, you can trust and cooperate with him without preamble. This led not only to sapiens triumph over other humans, but also allowed for organized religion, nation states, and international corporations.

Cool stuff.

But once we depart the ways of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and discover agriculture, Sapiens falters in several ways. Foremost is that it ceases to be surprising. While Harari does posit the extraordinary claim that agriculture was a disaster and quality of life for the average person plummeted (disease, famine, etc), most of the rest of it is stuff I’ve heard before. People became stationary, surplus allowed the rise of a specialist class, yatta, yatta.

Beyond that, the narrative also loses focus. It becomes a list of life-changing fictional inventions such as money, religion, and empire. It feels more like a collection of insights rather than a coherent history. The bits on empire are the strongest, and tie closely to the original thesis on the cognitive revolution and using fiction to organize, but the money section is strictly inferior to reading Debt: The First 5,000 Years, and I can barely remember what went on about religion.

The book closes with some science fiction, despite the author’s spurious claim that “This is not science fiction.” Post-history, wherein we become superhumans of some kind. Cyborgs or AIs or internet-connected hiveminds. Something truly beyond sapien:

Such a cyborg would no longer be human, or even organic. It would be something completely different. It would be so fundamentally another kind of being that we cannot even grasp the philosophical, psychological or political implications.

Sapiens was pleasant enough to read. The first section is legitimately good. The rest of the book brought me to a realization: I’ve read enough generalized non-fiction at this point that, barring a serious historical or scientific breakthrough of some kind, they naturally appear repetitive and in a significant way I’ll be failing at the goal of reading non-fiction in the first place: gaining knowledge. I’ve been reluctant to pick up more specific books about, say the rise and fall of the Habsburg Empire or the history of the pitbull. There seems like a higher risk that it will be less “useful” knowledge or that the specificity of the topic will lead the subject-dedicated author to be more a biased source. No matter. I must strike off from the generalized path.

Belladonna by Daša Drndić

In the afterword to his novel The Guiltless (Die Schuldlosen, 1950), Hermann Broch states that political indifference is closely linked to ethical depravity, that is, that politically innocent people are to a considerable degree ethically suspect, that they bear ethical blame, and stresses that the German populace did not feel responsible for Hitler’s coming to power because they considered themselves “apolitical”, in no way connected to what was happening around them. And what about the “apolitical” Croatian populace, which is selectively apolitical? How does it cope with what was happening and is still happening around it? It doesn’t. It enjoys music and applauds. And writes rigged history.

Damn.

This scathing indictment, which can be leveled at virtually all western nations, exemplifies Belladonna, a book about atrocity, about memory, about death. It’s a book that reserves several pages for a list of names of jewish children murdered from one small town in the 40s, a book that wants you to gaze at the abyss, in full (impossible), that fascism rent so deeply into European landscape and consciousness.

Our protagonist is Andreas Ban, a man with a lame leg, a lame hand, a cancerous breast, the spine of a 90 year old, glaucoma, suspiciously red-tinged eyes, and an isolated and troubled soul. Ban battles the truth of his own mortality, rapidly seeping away.  

He skips the first phase, the phase of rejecting the illness, he’s no fool. So he confronts it. The second phase, the phase of anger (fuck off!), settles down, he no longer shouts at the doctor, he’s tame. He rushes into the third phase, bargaining, with one sentence– Give me ten years— to which Dr. Toffetti replies, Perhaps. But then you’ll come back for another ten, and Andres Ban falls silent.

Ban’s health and history are only the half of it. He’s also obsessed with the Second World War. The holocaust looms foremost, yet it’s not simply German maleficence he’s concerned with, but the complicity of all of Europe. Examples include the Balkan states barbaric excecutions of Jewish villagers by their neighbors before the Germans even got there. Or, to take a different tact, the Dutch expelling Germans from the Netherlands post-WW2, even those who had emigrated long before the war and had Dutch spouses and children. It’s not simply the scale of torture and murder that pains Andreas, but the lengths people will go to forget, to shrug into apolitical stupor. They’ll go so far as to spin that loss of memory and responsibility into hero worship of men directly responsible for death camps.

This is one of the bleakest books I’ve read. There is no light at the end of the tunnel — just another train you can’t avoid. People will continue to forget our greatest crimes, even deny they ever occurred in the first place. Holocaust denial is on the rise. Consider this maddening article about Poland ascribing jailtime to telling the truth about its own complicity in the holocaust. It will depend on the reader whether Sadness or Anger is the primary emotion roused by Belladonna. For me, it was bitter anger. The same anger that erupts when watching Americans rewrite slavery or the Civil War. It’s not only a battle for human rights, but one for our collective memory, our history. 

Drndić is a deft writer, and the front and back covers of Belladonna are eager to compare it to the work of W. G. Sebald. Though there are a handful of paragraphs that devolve into an unclear word-salad, especially when delving a little too deeply into Andreas subconscious, most of the book can be opened at random to reveal clever insights: 

Cooking shows have long been universal hits. It might be worth asking why. Particularly since they are becoming increasingly tedious, unwatchable and undigestable. Since there is an ever-greater number of poor people, particularly those for whom TV shows are their only mental superstructure, these shows are also offensive. Lively performances by smiling chefs take place in elegant kitchens where high-quality pots and pans are used, the ingredients are expensive and often exotic. As Andreas fears that when he retires his nutrition will be reduced to chicken wings and innards and that he will, heaven forbid, go to the market just before it is blasted by water cannons to pick up a few rotten apples and discarded salad leaves, he find this nutrition craze nauseating.

Balkan history is unfamiliar to me, like I would assume it is for most Americans. I was a gradeschooler when the Yugoslav Wars broke out and the level of truth and history exposed to children at the time was shamelessly minimal. Yet it is important. As right-wing fascism takes deeper root in America, our own suddenly-confident Nazis scuttle from gutters like the rat on Belladonna’s cover, and we must look to the peoples who have been struggling with it for decades. It’s a disease some thought cured when the allies dismantled Auschwitz, but it lingers as a misshapen tumor, always lurking beneath humanity’s fragile skin. 

Let’s end this review with one of the many different descriptions of Belladonna in this novel:

Belladonna is a bushy plant that grows up to two meters high and contains atropine, still used today to dilate the pupils, while in the Renaissance women would drop the atropine into their eyes to make them shine. And so those idle Renaissance ladies, squeezed into their corsets, in their silk, brocade, velvet and cotton dresses walk around with dilated pupils, disoriented, half-blind, winking without knowing at whom and smiling foolishly into space. Their eyes appear dark and deep, but are in fact empty and colorless. They were beautiful women, le belle donne, blinded fools.

Assassin’s Creed Origins

Ancient Egypt is so cool. Stunning works of bronze-age architecture, endless deserts and oases. Camels. Thousands of years of humans living along the Nile. So long-lasting that Cleopatra lived her life closer to ours than to the architects of the great pyramids. Where writing, libraries, and Anne Rice’s vampires all began. 

For the past few games, the Assassin’s Creed series found itself mired in Western Europe with rapidly stagnating gameplay. It took a year off and returned revitalized. By revitalized, I mean borrowed heavily from The Witcher 3’s gameplay and world design, while investing to the usual high degree in creating a historical setting in-game.

Bayek of Siwa is a ‘medjay’, a sort of protector-shaman-civil serviceman. Some time prior to the start of the game, his son was murdered by a bunch of masked dudes sporting animal names like the Jackal or the Scarab. Naturally he decides to hunt them all down. While there’s some hackneyed bits towards the end where the game earns its subtitle, showing how the assassin’s creed began, the revenge story is basically all there is to the plot. A breadcrumb trail of corpses to take you around Egypt, which is so huge the main game doesn’t even take you through all the major zones. Not even close.

Bayek is a good hero. Furious and distraught over the loss of his son, yet buoyed by a paternal kindness that in other circumstances would be his defining trait. In between screaming at bad guys and then stabbing them, he’s trying to be everyone’s Dad. Many quests take this quite literally, helping parents, helping children. Facial tech really excels here, as it did in the Witcher, seeing Bayek’s smile after helping a child complete a task, then watching his eyes tighten and smile start to melt as he remembers. Other quests take on specific period dilemmas, and it’s great to see Bayek get pissed off and angrily growl “blasphemy!” when finding an illegal crocodile tannery in the middle of a city that is supposed to hold the animal sacred.

The modern era of video games is in crisis: There must be enemies to kill, to maim, to execute in 4k, HDR, glory. But who? Narratively and visually, we’ve moved beyond killing without purpose. The solution thus far has been populating the world with unthinking zombie/machine hordes or an ill-defined and ambiguous banditry. AC:O opts for the latter. You spend a whole lot of time in “bandit” camps, bandit forts, bandit hideouts. Who are these bandits? What did they do to deserve such mass slaughter? Why is the ratio of Egyptian citizens to Egyptian bandits basically 1:1? The game is not interested in fleshing this out; they’re ‘enemies’ like orcs or goombas. There are brief segments where it is Greeks or Romans who are the enemy, but the tangled web of Mediterranean imperialism and dynastic incest is certainly not something the series wants to engage with seriously.

I’ve drifted away from big budget Western titles, because they play it safe, both in gameplay and especially in narrative. For example, Ubisoft (maker of AC:O), is about to release Far Cry 5, which takes place in one of the most beautiful places on earth (Montana), but since the game refuses to engage meaningfully with its premise of ultra-right wing terrorists and plays it safe, trying to not to offend anyone (according to reviews), I am absolutely not interested. AC ultimately plays it safe too. You have a rote plot and spend hours killing bandits, but like I said in the first sentence, I get to ride a camel around Ancient Egypt, I get to climb pyramids and plunder tombs and be bitten by snakes. In some very specific cases, I’ll settle for, and indeed be well-satisfied by, an excellent historical setting paired with a good protagonist, regardless of what else may be missing. 

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

John Brown remains a fascinating, enigmatic, and powerful figure. Celebrated as a hero, vilified as a terrorist. Many have claimed him a fanatic or madman, while others point out the inherent racism in writing off the only white man willing to violently oppose slavery as crazy. He was friends with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who was sick and could not attend the raid on Harper’s Ferry as she planned, leading to one of history’s great “What If’s?” Emerson and Thoreau sung his praises, mourned his death. Victor Hugo wrote a moving letter seeking Brown’s pardon, ending with this seriously badass line:

“Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus.”

John Brown is one of the few genuine symbols of white resistance. He requires no qualifications nor asides, regardless of the extent the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy attempted to smear his name or erase him from history.  A few months back, when the country was racked with a wave of right-wing Nazi rallies, I joined the counter-protest here in SF and there were dozens of old white people out with John Brown’s face plastered on their T-shirts. Some even had banners. Big banners, taking multiple people to stretch out and hold. 170 odd years dead, John Brown and his cause continues to inspire people.

This brings us to The Good Lord Bird, the last in a set of Civil War era books I’ve read recently. Fictional pre-teen Henry Shackleford is freed and recruited by John Brown, who mistakes him for a girl and nicknames him Onion. Naturally, as these kinds of tales go, Henry/Onion galivants around with Brown, whom he affectionately thinks of as “The Old Man”, receiving a first-person perspective to all his greatest exploits: The Pottawatomie Massacre, meetings with Douglass and Tubman, the doomed raid on Harper’s Ferry itself.

The greatest flaw in this book is one of tone. On one hand its farcical and comedic: John Brown prays for so long, he puts captured rebels to sleep. He can’t tell a boy from a girl and neither can Frederick Douglass, portrayed here as a gluttonous phony. Harriet Tubman alone, “The General”, escapes caricature. There’s a lot of jokey wordplay, especially around Onion’s slang or his misunderstanding of the adult world, like when he accidentally professes himself an expert on “trim”, thinking it means barbering, when actually it was Civil War era slang for prostitution. While delving in humor and hyperbole, it’s also a book about slavery and naturally can’t take it too far, reverting to more a serious or honest tone at times. 

The result renders both the humor and thematic judgement weak. It also makes it difficult to divine authorial messaging. Am I supposed to think Frederick Douglass is a creep and coward only good for puffing up his chest and talking a whole lot? What about all the slaves and freedmen who didn’t commit to the raid on Harper’s Ferry? The narrative seems to be indicting them for their inaction but the waffling tone makes it hard to grasp.

The unevenness extends to Onion as well. Sometimes his perspective is that of 12 year old, other times its that of the 100+ year old man retelling the story. Onion the boy forced to be a girl is more like a Disney movie plot than a metaphor for the personal dislocation of many black people then and now, an idea McBride flirts with but never explores all that deeply. Put all this together and you have me feeling real disconnected from the story. From Onion, from John Brown. From the writing itself, which was honestly pretty good.

(This isn’t all the fault of an uneven tone; the book is overlong and suffers from underediting, leading to some dull segments, especially when the Old Man isn’t in the picture. The raid on Harper’s Ferry itself also feels like a litany of “this happened and then this happened and then this happened”.)

McBride’s acknowledgements at the end of the book, rather the usual skippable bit thanking agents and historians and whomever else, simply thanks all the people who have kept John Brown’s memory alive. That is seriously cool. It also makes me wish for a more tonally serious novel, tossing humor for a more powerful and straightforward account of the story/history. 

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Abe Lincoln’s young son, Willie, is taken by typhoid fever on the eve of a lavish party thrown by the Lincolns. He awakens in the eponymous bardo: A sort of post-death, pre-reward/punishment limbo, where the dead who absolutely cannot accept their death linger. Such as a fresh suicide who changed his mind at the last instant or a man whose years long passion was left unconsummated. Misers who can’t leave their earthly possessions behind or bachelor dandies who could never settle down, even in death.

I don’t know.

I enjoyed reading this. The writing is good. Charming. Often funny. Occasionally beautiful.  

Yet there’s something dissatisfying about the whole package. Like a beautiful painting that only fills a corner of a canvas. Or that same painting with the corner-portion stretched across the entire mural. Saunders is a short story writer and this feels less a complete novel than a slightly extended story.

The novel plays out in faux-excerpts of histories on the Lincolns and dialogue between the shades skulking around the bardo. The book is at its highest and most exceptional when painting its warm and generous portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Gregarious, kind, principled, exceedingly strange, thoughtful, ugly, grandfatherly, unsure, wise. A loving father who felt the loss of his favorite son so deeply, amid the nation newly at war. It is easy to become attached.

“Oh, the pathos of it!–haggard, drawn into fixed lines of unutterable sadness, with a look of loneliness, as of a soul whose depth of sorrow and bitterness no human sympathy could ever reach. The impression I carried away was that I had seen, not so much the President of the United States, as the saddest man in the world.”

 This is the second book I’ve read in a row that characterizes Honest Abe and demonstrates our shocking good fortune that America’s greatest president was in office simultaneously to its closest brush with annihilation. It’s not just political savvy but the personal attributes and integrity of the man that keeps him magnetic still. When AG Jeff Sessions threatened California recently and swore on the dead of Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln’s grave, it made me more furious than your average misuse of history usually does, given how antithetical the current administration is to Old Abe. Felt more personal, especially while reading this book.

Anyway.

The rest of the novel largely concerns three dead characters active in the bardo, denying their own realities whilst trying to help newly dead Willie Lincoln. These three — Bevins, Vollman, and the Reverend Early — are well drawn. They’re interesting and likeable guides for this strange new un-world. The rest are forgettable. All the pieces are there but their individual plights and reasons-for-being don’t form a lasting impact.  

This story has been done before. Stories about dead people talking to each other. Stories about tormented souls stuck in limbo, unable to let go of their incomplete, mysterious, or tragically shortened lives. Again, Saunders is an adroit wielder of prose, so it’s a good read, a quick one that took up two halves of a plane flight for a recent vacation. A literary beach read! If better read by a dying fire in a gloomy old New England manor than the beach.

But it’s also the first American novel to win the Man Booker Prize. When judged alongside some of those greats, or put on a pedestal as the best book of the year, I can’t help but compare to other novels that did a similar topic and wonder what makes this one so much better. The nagging feeling that it’s a short story stretched a little thin gains greater scrutiny. It was good but not that good.